Memento Mori and Vanitas

Día de Muertos

Día de Muertos (day of the dead) recently passed and reminded me of Memento Mori, which I thought was made famous by Roman Generals but can’t find proof, however I did find the cool painting called Vanitas (below) and more nuggets of knowledge about life, death and time.

memento mori (Latin ‘remember that you must die’) is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. “The expression ‘memento mori’ developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time
Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time

Albert Camus stated “Come to terms with death, thereafter anything is possible.” Jean-Paul Sartre expressed that life is given to us early, and is shortened at the end, all the while taken away at every step of the way, emphasizing that the end is only the beginning every day.

In Buddhism

The Buddhist practice maraṇasati meditates on death. The word is a Pāli compound of maraṇa ‘death’ (an Indo-European cognate of Latin mori) and sati ‘awareness’, so very close to memento mori. It is first used in early Buddhist texts, the suttapiṭaka of the Pāli Canon, with parallels in the āgamas of the “Northern” Schools.


In Japanese Zen and samurai culture

In Japan, the influence of Zen Buddhist contemplation of death on indigenous culture can be gauged by the following quotation from the classic treatise on samurai ethics, Hagakure:

The Way of the Samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death. Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done.

In the annual appreciation of cherry blossom and fall colors, hanami and momijigari, the samurai philosophized that things are most splendid at the moment before their fall, and to aim to live and die in a similar fashion.

In Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Citipati mask depicting Mahākāla. The skull mask of Citipati is a reminder of the impermanence of life and the eternal cycle of life and death.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a mind training practice known as Lojong. The initial stages of the classic Lojong begin with ‘The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind’, or, more literally, ‘Four Contemplations to Cause a Revolution in the Mind’. The second of these four is the contemplation on impermanence and death. In particular, one contemplates that;

  • All compounded things are impermanent.
  • The human body is a compounded thing.
  • Therefore, death of the body is certain.
  • The time of death is uncertain and beyond our control.

There are a number of classic verse formulations of these contemplation meant for daily reflection to overcome our strong habitual tendency to live as though we will certainly not die today.

Living life to it’s fullest is what Memento Mori means to me. Carpe Diem!

Vanitas photo credit Philippe de Champaigne – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork

, ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.